World Religions Talk God and Democracy

Ajit Jain in Toronto | Rediff  |  September 14, 2006 02:17 IST
Last Updated: September 14, 2006 02:32 IST

The key to Heaven doesn't lie in the hands of Islamic governments, says Irani Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi.

While formally releasing a 7-page document 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's Religions' for discussions at the weeklong conference on 'Human Rights and Religions', now taking place in Montreal, she said Islam has become captive to leaders in the Arab world who invoke the Quran to justify their own undemocratic government. 'These undemocratic governments are hiding behind Islam and using it to further their own goals."

After it is discussed at the conference in Montreal, that has 1,000 participants from 84 countries, the 'Declaration of Human Rights and Religions' will be presented at various international conferences and discussed with religious leaders and then presented to the Parliament of World Religions ion 2009, said Dr Arvind Sharma, Professor of Comprative Religions at McGill University. He's the principal organiser of the conference.

The document, designed on the lines of 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights' seeks to provide that all 'human beings (should) live in a just society' and that they (should) have the right to be treated as human beings and have the duty to treat everyone as a human being'.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who was amongst four speakers at the inaugural session, explained that individual identity has several levels as one can move from a more restricted identity (I am a Muslim. I am a Hindu) to a more expansive identity that that would depend on how we connect ourselves with the world.

Is our interest confined to ourselves or do we see it also encompassing others and depending on that our level of identity changes, this Hindu leader said.

He suggested that study of the basic essentials of all religions of the world should be made accessible to everybody throughout the world and that teaching of world religions be made compulsory all over the world.

Many people would deem it as a very controversial suggestion in the light of what is happening in Canada where in most public schools religion cannot form part of the curriculum. Such teachings of religions earlier have resulted in a great deal of controversy and leaders of faith groups and parents have gone to the human rights commission challenging such religious teachings in terms of discriminating one religion as against another.

Professor Sharma said Ravi Shankar didn't discuss this controversial part of his proposed teaching of world religions but gave an example of most people eating fruits without being worried as to its origin or which part of the world it's produced in. Similarly we use electronics and mechanical items irrespective of where they were manufactured.

"If in these matters our identity is global, why can't it be so in case of religions? The root cause is that from the beginning we are taught only about our own religions -- 'I am a Hindu, Christian, or Muslim' and so '...we start talking only about our religion and not about other religions," Ravi Shankar emphasised.

Ebadi emphasised the compatibility of Islam and democracy. In this regard she gave an example of the word 'Beyyat' in early Islam. Beyyat means consent/acceptance. When Prophet Mohammad went to Mecca, he accepted the Beyyat from various people and that means he sought their consent to his being a leader. Professor Sharma said Ebadi saw this as equivalent to getting a vote.

"What she was saying was that the idea of democracy, the idea of governing with the consent of the governed is not alien to Islam," Sharma interpreted the reasoning of Ebadi.

According to Ebadi, it is not right to say that there can be no conciliation between Islam and democracy. If, some Islamic governments argue otherwise, then such governments are not being 'truly Islamic.'

Sharma said, "As I understood, Ebadi was arguing that democracy is the rule of majority -- including theocratic states -- but it doesn't mean arbitrary rule of majority and it doesn't mean religious majority either.  It is a majority of the people and that means majority within a constitutional framework. To her, the fact that anybody has a majority doesn't mean you have a majority-based system."

Reverend Didji, leader of Swadhyay Parivar, referred to a social service that we use to devote ourselves to the well being of human beings. People generally believe God is within all of us and that inside everyone is divine, and so we should all respect the divinity of everybody.

"Please don't look down at anybody," she suggested. "Often simple ideas can be instruments of social change, ideas like devotion to God, or that God resides in everybody, God is everywhere."

She said, "This is what the Swadhyay movement actually stands for."

Karen Armstrong, best selling author on religions, took the participants back to the 6th Century BC to then prevailing period of  'Axian.' To her the broad period around that time saw the rise of remarkable religious leaders and religious ideas all over the world, including rise of Confucianism, Hinduism, transformation of Vedic Hinduism, rise of Buddhism and Jainism, all of these according to accepted Chronology.

Historically, there was also the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, prophets of ancient Israel, who started teaching monotheism. Then there was rise of philosophical thinking in Greece.

Sharma said, "What she (Karen) pointed out was that Axial revolution as it was called was change in religious thinking had one basic feature, "Don't be concerned only with yourself. Take the other persons also into account and in that she called it the formulation of the Golden Rule: Don't do unto others what you wouldn't like to do unto yourself".  She quoted Confucianism: One word of reciprocity and that means 'Teaching others as you teach yourself.'"

Armstrong also quoted from Judaism where an instance is given when a Rabbi was asked by a Roman soldier 'Could you tell me while I am standing on one foot the essence of Judaism and Rabbi's response was 'Don't do unto others what you wouldn't have done unto you and the rest is commentary.'

Nobel Laureate Ebadi criticised US for using democracy and human rights concerns as a pretext for war in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying, "Democracy cannot be spread through a cluster of bombs."

She later explained at a media briefing that human rights had nothing to do with the US invasion of Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein, as US tolerates many dictators.  To her the difference between Saddam Hussein and other dictators is "...he sat on a lot of oil and the others do not,' she said.

By the same token she wouldn't accept any intervention of the US in her own country Iran despite the fact the current government there may be violating human rights of people, "We love Iran and will not allow it to be turned into a second Iraq. It is the responsibility of Iranians to advance democracy. It doesn't involve US foot soldiers."